Tuesday, 29 September 2020 09:47

Kountdown: Are Raider fans ready for the return of predetermined brackets?

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Deon Cranford looks at the pros and cons of predetermined playoff brackets. Deon Cranford looks at the pros and cons of predetermined playoff brackets. Deon Cranford — The Richmond Observer.

As the football playoffs approach each fall, grumblings throughout Raider faithful about the NCHSAA bracket process is always present.  In the past two decades fans have been introduced to subdivided playoffs, the pod system and the always confusing adjusted MaxPreps rankings.

In an effort to keep things as fair as possible, the postseason selection process is fluid – changing often to reduce commute times and provide berths or home field advantage to as many deserving teams as possible.  By the time that fans have a reasonable understanding of the current postseason system, changes are made.  Add that to the recurring “will they go east or west” debate, and Richmond fans typically find that attempting to predict the Raiders’ postseason placement was a futile endeavor.

In its most recent announcement, the NCHSAA released some of its playoff plans for the upcoming 2020-21 sports seasons.  There was one major change to the postseason selection process that caught the attention of many high school sports fans across the state – the return of predetermined brackets.  That announcement divided long time high school sports fans with many cheering the return of predetermined brackets while others moaned in disgust.  The younger crowd was just left scratching their heads.

With each sport’s schedule being adjusted in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the decision to switch to a predetermined bracket makes perfect sense since the current adjusted MaxPreps algorithm will be affected by the shortened seasons and the schools’ inability to schedule quality non-conference opponents.  Whether you favor a predetermined bracket or prefer a ranking system, both have merits and issues.  So, with predetermined brackets making a temporary return, let’s look at some of the pros and cons of the predetermined bracket playoff system.

PRO: The brackets were much easier to predict. 

If you are unfamiliar with predetermined brackets, they assign all automatic berths a position in the postseason bracket before the season even begins.  For example, somewhere in the bracket, it may say that the Sandhills Athletic Conference #1 team will face the CAP 7 #3 team in the first round of the playoffs.  Regardless of the sport, if Richmond wins the SAC and Millbrook is the third place team of the CAP 7, then Richmond will host Millbrook in the first round of the playoffs.  All automatic berths are assigned a first round opponent and any available wildcard teams will be worked in to fill up the bracket.

As the end of the season gets closer, prognosticators have a much easier time of deciding what the overall postseason picture will look like since they have a pretty good idea of where teams will be placed in the bracket based on their projected conference position.  It also gives the committee overseeing the formation of the postseason bracket a much easier job – except when a tiebreaker is needed that is.

CON: Ties were broken by luck instead of merit.

While it can be very confusing, one thing that most people do enjoy about the recent use of the MaxPreps ranking system is that tiebreakers are based on a team’s success rather than just blind luck.  If there was a tie within the final conference standings that could not be broken using head-to-head competition, and there were playoff berths on the line, then conferences typically resorted to drawing names out of a hat or flipping a coin to break the tie.  You do not have to travel far to find a program that regularly suffered from this process.

During the Mark Barnes era at Scotland High School, the Fighting Scots football program lost multiple tiebreakers.  In 2000, the Scots ended the season in a three-way tie for second place in the Southeastern Conference with Anson High School and Hoke High School.  As the champions, Richmond nailed down the conference’s top berth leaving room for only two other teams from the SEC to join them in the postseason.  After drawing names from a hat, Anson and Hoke moved on to the playoffs while the Scots saw their season come to a frustrating end.

The very next season, the Scots found themselves in a three-way tie with Richmond and Douglas Byrd High School as the conference champions of the newly formed Midsoutheastern Conference.  The Scots once again ended up third in the draw which sent them to Wilmington in round one to face an undefeated Laney High School team while Richmond and Byrd enjoyed home games.  Over the years, the Scots have been excluded from the postseason at least five times due to the tiebreaker rule used at the time.

PRO: Conference games are more important.

Since the tiebreaker system overlooked a team’s overall body of work and used a simple game of chance, it was important to avoid that scenario altogether by winning.  While all teams wanted to come out of each outing with a victory, conference games and matches were much more important when predetermined brackets were used.  In essence, every game became a playoff game.  In the grand scheme of things, regular season games are less important under the current format.  With so many teams qualifying for the postseason, it is much easier to recover from a midseason slip up.  

In the upcoming sports seasons, all conferences with six teams or less will only receive one automatic berth; seven and eight team conferences will receive two, and conferences with more than eight teams will receive three.  To put this into perspective, the Sandhills Athletic Conference had six schools to qualify for the 2019 football playoffs.  This upcoming season, they are only going to be guaranteed two spots.  This means that a single loss can have a big impact on your postseason outlook.

CON: Many deserving teams are left out.

If you do not believe one loss can change everything, one school’s single defeat in 2001 makes Scotland’s tiebreaker woes seem insignificant.  Northern Nash High School (Rocky Mount, N.C.) had one of its best football seasons in program history.  The Knights finished the regular season 10-1 and were poised for a deep playoff run.  The only problem, they did not qualify for the playoffs due to their single loss. 

Northern Nash was part of the Big East Conference that only had six members.  Their lone loss was to Havelock, a conference opponent.  As the conference’s second place team, the Knights’ 10-1 record would have still earned them at least a wildcard spot.  However, Havelock fell to New Bern, another Big East team that Northern Nash defeated.  This created a three-way tie for first between Northern Nash, Havelock and New Bern who all finished with 4-1 conference records.

With three eligible teams and only two available spots, the schools resorted to drawing names out of a hat to break the tie. Northern Nash lost the draw and was left out of the playoffs despite having a better record than both Havelock (8-2) and New Bern (8-3).  The sting was even worse seeing 6-4 Leesville Road and 6-5 East Wake taking spots in the east bracket while members of a 10-1, co-conference champion was at home cleaning out their lockers.

This was one of the most noteworthy occurrences of this, but there were many other really good teams across all sports that were left on the outside looking in simply because their conference featured several quality programs.

PRO: It prevented first round conference matchups.

Since predetermined brackets are designed to pit the member of one conference against the member of another conference, it eliminated any chance of teams from the same conference running into each other in the first round.  This is especially important for the home-and-away sports.  For example, in a sport like volleyball, it would be possible to play the same team in the season finale, in the conference tournament, and in the first round of the playoffs – three times in about two weeks.

In the 2018 4A baseball playoffs, there were four first round games that featured conference opponents (Heritage/Wakefield, Grimsley/Page, East Mecklenburg/Independence, and Lake Norman/Hopewell).  Page High and Grimsley High met in the first round of the 2018 and 2019 playoffs.  Lake Norman High and Hopewell High played both of their regular season conference games, a conference tournament game and a first round playoff game – all four occurring within 20 days. 

In baseball and softball, it is possible for Richmond and Scotland to end the season with two conference games, meet in the conference tournament, and meet again in the first round of the playoffs in just 14 days.

The predetermined brackets can at least provide some separation.

ISSUE: How will subdivided playoffs work?

The NCHSAA reported that “all team sport playoffs will be 32-team brackets” with the one exception being football.  In each of the four classifications, football will be subdivided into two 16-team brackets.  This means that the postseason will be shortened by one week for every sport.

The issue is that most conferences have members from both sides of the subdividing line (Richmond is 4AA and Scotland is 4A).  When determining where the Sandhills Athletic Conference’s number one team is placed on the bracket, where do you put it (in the 4AA bracket or the 4A bracket)?

Since the Sandhills Athletic Conference is an eight-member conference, then the SAC will receive two automatic berths.  If Richmond and Scotland were to finish first and second, then one would likely go to 4AA while the other would go to 4A.  If Richmond and Pinecrest were to finish in the top two spots, then both would likely go to 4AA.

You also must consider that sudden changes in the average daily membership (ADM) could affect this as well.  For example, Richmond was the third smallest school in the 4AA bracket last season.  It is not outside of the realm of possibility that the Raiders could wind up in the 4A bracket.  If more smaller schools qualify, Richmond will probably land in the 4AA bracket.

If more larger schools qualify, Richmond could end up in the 4A bracket.  This means that even if you are successfully able to predict the outcome of every conference race, you would still have to account for other factors like size and location in order to determine where to place the automatic berths in the bracket.

This is a huge question that is still unanswered.

PRO: The Raiders are back!

Regardless of what postseason brackets are used, I think everyone in Raider Nation will be excited to see their Raiders playing again.